Austerity measures like the ‘bedroom tax’ are pushing women in Doncaster to sell their bodies on the town’s streets, say charity Changing Lives.
Changing Lives report that just under a third - 28.33 per cent - of the women involved in Doncaster’s sex trade that they spoke to during the last quarter were new to prostitution or had been out of it for at least three years. In comparison, eight new women turned to prostitution between March and July this year.
Staff at Changing Lives are on the frontline providing help, support and signposting for women involved with vice work in Doncaster - most of which centres around the Thorne Road area. This is done through Project Amber, which is part-funded by Doncaster Council.
Project Amber worker Cath Robinson said: “That’s a really big rise. 17 out of 60 women were new, or were at least new to us - and we’ve been doing Project Amber for three years. So they’ve clearly been out of it for a while.
“The bedroom tax has definitely been the biggest reason for new women starting sex work, or returning to it after a long time.
“A lot of these women might be placed in three bedroom premises and there aren’t a lot of one bedroom properties in Doncaster so they’re being forced to find that extra money.
“Their benefits don’t cover it and so they’re having to find it elsewhere.
“Of the 17 new women three of them were homeless, another three had just come out of prison and so they were effectively homeless as well. They hadn’t been able to sort anything out with benefits and so they’d gone
straight on to the streets to try and earn some money quickly.
“Some of the women had also come into it because of domestic abuse.”
Cath says that another worrying trend that had been noticed by staff involved with Project Amber was the fact that women had been seen attempting to sell sex in the Thorne Road area at around 6am and 7am in a bid to pick up trade from people on their way to work.
She added: “Women are coming out earlier and earlier to try and pick up work, and are reportedly also coming out first thing. We’re going to try and make sure we provide outreach to those women too.”
Cath says that while the vast majority of women who are involved with sex work in Doncaster may have a substance or alcohol abuse problem that a number will become more dependant on those substances in order to help cope with life in the sex trade.
In addition, Cath believes a number of women with drink or drug habits may also be forced on to the streets in order to fund their partners’ habits too.
“A lot of women don’t even realise they’re in abusive relationships. They go on to the streets to fund their partner’s habits but won’t see any problems with it because they’ve had these kind of relationships their entire lives.”
Commenting on the rise in the number of people turning to the sex trade in Doncaster, Mayor Ros Jones said: “This information from Changing Lives is deeply concerning, and shows that vulnerable people are being directly damaged by the Government’s harsh policies.
“We’ve already seen homelessness increasing across the country and now charities are telling us of people being driven to prostitution in order to pay their bills, as a direct consequence of austerity imposed from Westminster.”
“A significant number of people are reporting that the bedroom tax and benefit cuts are leaving them with no choice but to turn to sex work, which is totally unacceptable. At Doncaster Council we support the work of
Changing Lives, including helping to fund the award-nominated Amber Project alongside the Police and Crime Commissioner, but of course the Government is cutting Council budgets too, meaning far less money is available to help people in need.
“In my view the Government must recognise the damage its policies are causing and act now to change the situation and tackle the underlying causes of the problem.”
Project Amber works with survival sex workers in Doncaster both on and off the streets.
It provides support to the women and men involved via both an outreach service twice weekly at night in the main area affected and through support within the daytime to work individually with the workers to enable them to attend services for support.
As part of their outreach service they give out food packages, contraception and rape alarms as well as providing support and signposting for help with health, benefits, housing and anything else they may need.
The project is run in conjunction with South Yorkshire Police - who Cath says have helped to build up a relationship of trust with many of the girls which has led to them feeling more comfortable about reporting sexual assaults and rapes.
When asked about whether police had also seen a rise in the number of incidents of prostitution - a South Yorkshire Police spokesman said they had seen a 45 per cent decrease in the number of complaints made about prostitution in Doncaster over the last quarter.
Cath says she believe the drop in the number of complaints may be because less people feel the need to make complaints to police about prostitution after Changing Lives informed sex workers that members of the public had made complaints about condoms and needles being left on the streets.
She said: “Once we tell them that complaints have been made, they generally try and change their behaviour. The needle exchange on Thorne Road has also helped a lot.”
Laura Watson, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes which collects data on sex work in England, said the rise in women turning to prostitution was a ‘pattern’ also being seen across the rest of the country.
She said: “We know that benefit sanctions are causing women to be forced into it in South Yorkshire and across England.
“Women, who may have children to look after, are having their benefits sanctioned and may have no other choice but to turn to sex work.
“The change in the benefits system is affecting a lot of people.
“That is why we are calling for income support to be reintroduced for mothers. We are also calling for prostitution to be de-criminalised in order to make it safer, and because it can be a cycle women find it difficult to get out of if they get a criminal record for being involved with sex work.”